5 Types of AR and How They Improve Online Shopping

illustration header for a blog post about types of augmented reality

Once a radical-sounding technology popular among gamers and Gen Z TikTokers, augmented reality (AR) has fast become a key component of online shopping. Different types of AR can help shoppers visualize and try products they may have otherwise been unable to, helping them make more informed purchasing decisions without ever setting foot in a store. 

To make the most of augmented reality technology, it helps to understand how different types of AR can improve shopping experiences. Here are a few ways you can liven up your offerings.

What is augmented reality (AR)? 

Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that integrates digital information with the user’s physical environment in real time. Through a camera or other display device, AR overlays virtual objects onto real-world environments, making it possible to add computer-generated images, sound, videos, text, filters, infographics, or other sensory inputs to a user’s view of their surroundings.

Using ecommerce AR, online shoppers can virtually try before they buy, making it especially useful in industries like fashion and home décor, where shoppers often like to interact with products in person before purchasing. Customers can get a better sense of how a product looks without needing to see it in a physical store. They can virtually try on a shirt or place a couch in their living room to see if it fits—no heavy lifting required. 

5 types of AR

  1. Marker-based AR
  2. Markerless AR
  3. Projection-based AR
  4. Superimposition-based AR
  5. Location-based AR 

Depending on what you sell, a specific type of AR may best suit your offerings. Here are five different types of AR, how they work, and a use case.

1. Marker-based AR

Marker-based AR—also referred to as image recognition AR—relies on a QR code or visual marker, also known as a fiducial marker, to trigger the interactive experience. A shopper scans the marker with their smartphone camera, activating the visual effects. They can then move their mobile device around the static marker to see the digital image in 3D on their screen 

The critical limitation of marker-based AR is it can only be used with mobile devices (i.e., smartphones or tablets), and users may need to download a dedicated app (like Google Play Services for AR for Android devices; Apple iPhone users with iOS 13 or higher have access to built-in AR support). 

IKEA’s Place app lets users preview furniture at home before making a purchase. It uses a smartphone or tablet camera to scan the user’s environment and detect a flat surface, like a floor or table. The user can then choose a piece of furniture from the IKEA catalog and place a digital version on the detected surface. The app uses marker-based AR to recognize the environment and adjust the digital object’s position and scale to ensure accurate placement and size.

2. Markerless AR

Markerless AR doesn’t rely on physical markers like a QR code or image. Instead, it uses location-based data like GPS or accelerometers in mobile devices to detect and track the user’s environment and determine the location of the virtual content. This allows the software to understand the spatial relationships and orientation of objects and surfaces in the user’s view and superimpose the virtual content accordingly.

Shoppers open the mobile app or webpage and scan their physical environment with their device to make the digital item appear on material surfaces, like the floor or a wall. Markerless AR can work on irregular surfaces as long as there are recognizable features like corners, textures, and objects to track. Note that the complexity and variability of the environment impact the accuracy of markerless AR. 

Markerless AR is usually more complex and costly to set up, but also the most popular option in online shopping and gaming, thanks to its ease of use and flexibility. Markerless AR includes three other types of AR:pProjection-based AR, superimposition-based AR, and location-based AR.

3. Projection-based AR

Projection-based AR relies on projectors to display 3D imagery or digital content onto a flat two-dimensional surface, like a wall, floor, or object. It doesn’t create fully immersive environments, mainly holograms for events and movies.

You can use projection-based AR for in-person events like store openings or pop-up shops, where you might want to show holograms. 

4. Superimposition-based AR

With superimposition-based AR, an existing physical item is fully or partially replaced with a digital augmentation. In other words, it identifies specific objects or features in the user’s view—perhaps a book cover, a product label, or a landmark—then overlays relevant digital content onto the object or feature. 

In physical stores, superimposition AR can give customers directions and guidance. By overlaying virtual arrows onto the environment, shoppers can find their way to the products they’re looking for. Superimposition AR can also provide customers with product details. By pointing their smartphone camera at a product, shoppers can see virtual overlays with details like price, features, and reviews.

5. Location-based AR

Location-based AR is a type of markerless AR that relies on geographic data to deliver digital images at specific locations. It’s a popular type of AR for gaming––Pokémon Go, for example, relies on location-based AR.

Brands that want to gamify the shopping experience could use location-based AR to encourage shoppers to interact with their products. For instance, you could create a virtual scavenger hunt encouraging shoppers to explore your store and collect rewards.

How can AR benefit ecommerce?

A few years ago, the only way to see a product yourself was to go to a store. As AR becomes more common, we’re no longer bound by these limitations—a boon for shoppers and sellers alike.

It’s no wonder, then, that customers want to use AR. In 2023, around 97 million Americans expect to use AR at least once a month, and nearly half say they’re interested in using AR and VR technology to shop in the next five years. 

Different types of AR can help you bridge the gap between online shopping and in-store experiences. They can also help you:

  • Reduce return rates. Using AR, customers can get a more accurate representation of a product before buying it, making it less likely they’ll order the wrong size or color, for instance.
  • Increase conversion rates. By letting customers view products in a virtual environment, try them on virtually, or see how they would look in their space, shoppers are more likely to purchase.
  • Differentiate your brand. AR lets brands create unique and memorable shopping experiences, helping them stand out in a crowded retail landscape.

According to Stone Crandall, co-founder of home and lifestyle brand Magnolia, “When people come to see us in Waco, we want to make sure every detail captures the true spirit of Magnolia. Not everyone is able to visit us in person, but it was still important to us that the finer details of the in-store experience come through for those shopping online and on the go—augmented reality makes that possible.

“With this technology, users can see our products up-close to examine the intricacies that make them special and unique. We always want our guests to leave feeling inspired by what they’ve experienced, and thanks to the new Magnolia app, they’ll be able to do just that—no matter where they’re located—from the palm of their hands.” 

Here are a few specific use cases that illustrate how AR can benefit your business.

Virtual showrooms

Use AR to create immersive and interactive environments where customers can view and interact with virtual representations of products or services. For example, instead of having to go in-store to compare pieces of furniture with images of their rooms, customers can point their mobile devices at their home space and virtually place the furniture where they’d like, giving them a better idea of compatibility. 

For example, the BMW i Visualizer app uses augmented reality to let you configure and customize your dream car. You can choose the model, select colors, and customize the exterior and interior features of the vehicle, then use your smartphone camera to see a 3D model of the car in your environment, like your driveway or garage.

image of BMW's i visualizer app

Virtual try-on

You can use VR to create virtual try-on experiences, allowing customers to see how different products, like clothing or eyewear, look on them without physically trying them on. They can try different sizes, colors, and styles from the comfort of their home. 

Accessory brand The Cambridge Satchel Company uses Shopify AR to let online shoppers virtually place a 3D image of a bag in their real-time environment, using their mobile device. '

image of The Cambridge Satchel Company in Shopify's AR app

Virtual try-on gives shoppers a better idea of a product’s color and dimensions before they commit to buying, which can improve satisfaction and lower return rates. 

Camera filters

Camera filters help customers test makeup or accessories, like glasses, by using facial recognition and tracking technology to superimpose digital products onto faces in real time. 

Sephora’s Virtual Artist feature uses AR to let customers virtually try on makeup products through their mobile device cameras. Customers can choose from various cosmetic products, including eyeshadow, eyeliner, and lipstick.

image of Sephora's AR app

In-store mirrors

AR in-store mirrors—i.e., augmented reality mirrors—are interactive displays that use AR to create a virtual try-on experience for customers in physical store settings, saving them time and effort, while allowing them to quickly experiment with different colors and styles. For the retailer, it lowers the risk of item theft or damage. 

Clothing brand and Shopify merchant Rebecca Minkoff installed AR mirrors in some of its stores that let shoppers see how different outfits look on them. These mirrors also offer product recommendations and let shoppers purchase items directly from the mirror. 

Types of AR FAQ

Can markerless AR be used in a wider range of environments than marker-based AR?

Markerless AR can be used in a wider range of environments than marker-based AR, because it doesn’t rely on physical markers, making it more flexible than marker-based AR. Markerless AR is a top choice if you want to build mobile apps, filters, and lenses.

Does projection-based AR require the use of a headset or other hardware?

No. Unlike virtual reality (VR), projection-based AR doesn’t require the use of a headset or other hardware. It requires a projector to shine light at flat two-dimensional surfaces.

Are there any limitations to the accuracy of markerless AR when compared to marker-based AR?

Markerless AR is generally less accurate than marker-based AR. Environmental conditions like the shape of the physical space can impact the scaling and positioning of virtual images. Marker-based AR provides a fixed reference point,making it more reliable, while markerless AR is more flexible and adaptable to different scenarios.